Fear and the Garrison State


Apr 26, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on April 26, 2005.

In response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Washington has become a city of mini-fortresses. National monuments are behind concrete barriers, public access to public buildings such as Congress and the White House is severely restricted, and roads are blocked off. And just as the fear of another terrorist attack has become a major factor in determining restrictions around government buildings, it has become a major factor in determining actions of government officials.

Is this tightening of security the only prudent course for a nation facing the possibility of other deadly surprise attacks? And will the broad range of security measures designed to stop terrorists eventually threaten the United States' cherished values, institutions and liberties — turning the nation into a garrison state?

It is hardly surprising — with the Bush administration consistently saying the threat from terrorism is constant and overwhelming — that extraordinary, expensive and unprecedented security is now the norm for major public events.

President George W. Bush has said that government and the American people must be “on watch” at all times. In an effort to persuade the American people to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the president said two weeks before the invasion: “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” And in a speech in 2002 laying out his new national security policy, the president said: “… in defending the peace we face a threat with no precedent.”

But while the United States has never been threatened by an international terrorist organization like al-Qaida, this is not the first time in U.S. history that the fear of an attack from a foreign enemy has come to dominate the psychology of the nation. Looking back at how the United States dealt with such fear in the past can help us better understand how it can be dealt with today and tomorrow.

During the early years of the Cold War, the United States was gripped by the fear of an atomic attack by the Soviet Union that could kill tens of millions of Americans. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was nevertheless determined not to alter the basic civil liberties and democratic character of the United States to meet the Soviet threat.

The secretive and ruthless Soviet dictatorship of the 1950s was far more powerful and every bit as mysterious and frightening as al-Qaida. Policymakers and the general public had very little information about how many atomic weapons the Soviet Union had, where the Soviets might use the weapons, and under what circumstances. This fear generated a sense of paranoia that led to anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and a push for higher defense spending to meet the unknown extent of the Soviet military power.

However, major government figures — including Eisenhower — concluded there was a heavy price to pay for constantly discussing the Soviet threat in the most extreme terms. Eisenhower believed that an exclusive focus on the military potential of the Soviet Union would turn the United States into a garrison state, with an economy dominated by military spending and civil liberties eroded.

Early in his administration, Eisenhower alluded to the need for balance in creating national security policy. His 1953 national security policy — known as the New Look — began by asserting that the basic problems of U.S. national security were both “to meet the Soviet threat to U.S. national security” and “in doing so, to avoid seriously weakening the U.S. economy or undermining our fundamental values and institutions.” Eisenhower returned to this theme again throughout his presidency as the Pentagon and the Congress pressed for increased military expenditures.

The words that Eisenhower used in describing the threat the United States faced some 50 years ago are quite different than what we hear from government officials today. Eisenhower was no dove, and he spoke often about the dangers of Communism and the need to win the Cold War. However, he understood how fearful American society was in the early 1950s and that there was no need to overplay the danger the United States faced. In fact, Eisenhower did exactly the opposite — through his demeanor and decision-making he tried to calm the U.S. people.

Keeping the nation calm was not easy in the 1950s. Eisenhower confronted a series of crises across the globe, each of which posed serious dangers for miscalculation between the two superpowers. The president always portrayed things as well under control as he quietly reassured the American people that the man who commanded the D-Day invasion was on the job. In many ways the measure of his success is that the 1950s are remembered not as a period of acute crisis but instead as a period of prosperity and normality in the country's life.

If Eisenhower's example were followed today, the United States would re-establish a balance between meeting the threat posed by radical Islam and preserving U.S. values and institutions.

The United States has always prided itself on being an open and democratic society with its government institutions and policies being a reflection of those fundamental values. The new garrison mentality and state work against that historic image.

“Outside View” © 2005 United Press International

Lowell H. Schwartz is an associate international policy analyst at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, which seeks solutions to problems worldwide.

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